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Interstate 355 and the Legacy of Daniel Burnham

Click here for an overview of the accomplishments of Daniel Burnham

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will themselves not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.” So said Daniel H. Burnham, noted architect and author of the influential 1909 Plan of Chicago.

In his day, Mr. Burnham was perhaps the world’s most famous builder and planner. His architectural firm designed such notable buildings as the Rookery, Monadnock, Reliance and Marshall Field Store in Chicago, the Flatiron in New York, Filene’s Department Store in Boston, and Union Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. He was in charge of construction for the 1893 Columbian Exposition World’s Fair, the famous “White City” that attracted over 25 million visitors to Chicago. In the first decade of the 20th century, he branched out into city planning, creating plans for Washington D.C., Cleveland, San Francisco, Manila in the Philippines, and finally Chicago.

Click here to read the Wikipedia entry on I-355

Burnham’s name has been invoked recently in conjunction with the recent completion of an extension of Interstate 355 12 ½ miles south from I-55 to I-80. According to writer Jeanne Rogers, Will County, Illinois officials refer to the new tollway as “the golden corridor of the future.” “It paves the way for an influx of business to the region including industrial, commercial, retail, and office. It provides a direct link to the Will County market making it more attractive for business owners considering relocation.” Future plans call for a “Daniel Burnham Outerbelt,” “In this proposal a new “Illiana Expressway” will directly connect Interstate 65 in Indiana with Interstate 57 in Illinois. It is proposed that I-57 then connect to I-55 within the vicinity of the Joliet Arsenal and then over to I-80. The plan continues with the Prairie Parkway then extending the route from I-80 to I-88 and on northward.” (REjournals.com, "Manufacturers eye Will County,”)

Rogers goes on to assert, “Will County certainly has big plans in store for the future, but this plan is not a recent development. In fact the outer belt was first conceived nearly 100 years ago...by none other than Daniel H. Burnham.” Jonh McIntyre, Homer Township’s Community Development Director, was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times in an article by Larry Finley, "The first concept for something like I-355 was in the 1890s, in the Daniel Burnham Chicago Plan. We have been waiting over a century for it." (18 February 2001)

To see a map of the proposed Illiana Tollway, click here

Scheme of Encircling and Radial Highways. Click here for larger view

While it is true that the Plan of Chicago was prescient in calling for a system of highways encircling and radiating from Chicago, I doubt that Burnham and his fellow planners would look at our superslabs with anything other than horror. They anticipated that the Chicago metropolitan area would expand—in fact, they expected that it would eventually be the largest metro area in the world. Writing in 1909, Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, the co-authors of the Plan, stated “Chicago is now facing the momentous fact that fifty years hence, when the children of to-day are at the height of their power and influence, this city will be larger than London: that is, larger than any existing city…if the national and local conditions governing the population of Chicago shall average in the future exactly as in the past the population in 1952 will be 13,250,000.”

Forces beyond the ability of Burnham and Bennett to foresee led to a current population in the metro area of 9,505,748, significantly less than the 1909 estimates. In some ways, however, clearly the reasons for less-than-anticipated growth, as well as the spread of sprawl and our over-reliance on the personal automobile can be traced to the fact that some of the important prescriptions for healthy growth in the Plan were ignored.

Plan of Chicago Rail Freight Center. Click here for larger view

One example that can be seen as perhaps a failure of the Plan, in one sense, and a precept that was ignored to our ongoing detriment, was that the Plan assumed a continuing preeminence in rail passenger service as the main transportation mode for both long distance and intra-metropolitan travel. In 1909, twenty-two trunk rail lines entered Chicago “from every possible direction, and with connections extending to all portions of the country.” The expectation was that the rail traffic would continue to be the lifeblood of the region as long as adjustments were made to “handle the traffic of the railroads with dispatch and at the lowest cost. The city is too large for each railroad to attempt to maintain a separate system unrelated to that of any other except the physical connection of the tracks. The time has come to develop one common system for the handling of freight,--a traffic clearing-house.” The freight center was to be located in the general area of Summit, Illinois, and would be linked by underground rail lines to the river harbors on the lakefront at the Chicago River and the Calumet River.

Plan of Chicago Passenger Rail Stations. Click here for larger view

This scheme would have diverted all freight rail traffic outside of the city of Chicago to a central freight handling yard, so that all cartage that was not destinating or originating in the city could bypass the city proper. Passenger rail would also be consolidated under the Plan, with a series of rail terminals arrayed in an ‘L’ shape centered on Roosevelt Road and Halsted Street. Rapid transit, in the form of underground and overhead loops, would link the passenger rail stations to the city center and the neighborhoods of Chicago. Consolidation and rationalization of rail service, it was believed, would keep Chicago as the most important hub of the greatest transportation network ever devised. The Plan gave no consideration to the concept of rail transit diminishing in importance.

Concept for Chicago's Union Station. Click here for larger view

With a rational approach to rail as the lynchpin of their Plan, Burnham and Bennett assumed that the addition of a correlated system of radial and encircling highways would allow for continued growth of the region and would give proper place to both the remaining horse-drawn vehicles as well as the new automobiles. “While good highways are of great value to the terminal cities, they are of even greater value to the outlying towns, and of greatest value to the farming communities through which they pass. Good roads add an element of better living to an agricultural community; they afford ready communication with the city and reduce materially the cost of handling farm products of all kinds; and also they promote communication between farms. These state highways should invariably include a work-road for heavy loads, and also a pleasure drive. The two should be separated by a grassway and there should be grass plots at the sides, and not less than three roads of trees should be planted. The country schools should be on these highways.”

Lake Shore Drive 1906. Click here for more information on early Chicago Highways

Highways of this description make sense only in a system where freight is carried long-distance by rail, not over-the-road 18-wheelers, and where the majority of passenger traffic is riding the rails as well. This allows the highways to be used for farm-to-market trips and for vacations and holiday travel. To each its own place and proportion.

I believe that if something like Burnham and Bennett’s vision could have materialized, we would be the better for it. Rail transport creates conditions that work against sprawl. If one is dependent upon a transportation system that concentrates its service around depots, there is a disadvantage to locating too far from that depot. The worst type of expansion becomes the norm when distance becomes a non-issue. Subdivisions are built with no concern for aesthetics and quality of construction. As we have been warned by Burnham and Bennett, “Too often…the suburb is laid out by the speculative real estate agent who exerts himself to make every dollar invested turn into as many dollars as possible. Human ingenuity contrives to crowd the maximum number of building lots into the minimum space; if native trees exist on the land they are ruthlessly sacrificed. Then the speculative builder takes matters in hand and in a few months the narrow, grassless streets are lined with rows of cheaply constructed dwellings…in ten years or less the dwellings are dropping to pieces.” Looking at the new subdivisions now sprouting on former farmland in DuPage and Will County, this seems like a prescient message.

The type of highway envisioned by the Plan is exactly the type we now refer to as a “blue highway,” the two-to-four lane thoroughfare which allowed for unlimited access, great views of the natural landscape, and easy connection to the surrounding cities and towns. In other words, the very thing roadies yearn for as they seek out old Route 66, the Lincoln Highway, or the Dixie Highway. These highways would certainly attract the type of business that would serve travelers; but if the local population was dependent on rail for day-to-day needs, then commercial growth appealing to locals would concentrate around depots and transit stops. To each its own place and proportion. No sprawl, and therefore no crawl along choked roads.

Click here to see a PDF modern-day routing of the Outer Encircling Highway

The Plan states, “At the earliest possible date measures should be taken for beginning what may be termed the outer encircling highway. Beginning at Kenosha on the north, this thoroughfare would run through Pleasant Prairie, Trevor, and Wilmot to McHenry, thus passing through the northern lake region. Here are the headwaters of the Fox River, lying in natural scenery of much beauty; here too are a large number of lakes and waterways surrounded by hills, the whole forming at extensive parklike territory that willl become an important adjunct of Chicago life when properly improved, and when suitable connections are secured.

”Beyond McHenry, this outer encircling highway continues on through Woodstock, Marengo, Genoa, Sycamore, De Kalb, Cortland, Sandwich, Millington, and Morris; thence it runs beside or near the Kankakee River through Wilmington, Kankakee, Momence, Shelby, and Maysville, the scenery along the route being very interesting, and much of it romantically beautiful. From Maysville the highway bends north through Valparaiso to Lake Michigan at Michigan City; or by another route from Maysville through La Crosse, Wellsboro, and La Porte to Michigan City, the total length from Kenosha around to Michigan City being approximately two hundred and fifty miles. It is obvious that such a highway, properly built and adorned, would become a strong influence in the development of the social and material prosperity of each of the cities involved, and of all the farming communities along the entire route.”

Looking at modern maps, it is clear that this highway was never developed in the manner expected by Burnham and Bennett. I have worked out for my own enjoyment a routing that approximates what is proposed in the Plan. Sections where the Plan called for roads along riverbanks or at diagonals from the cardinal directions seem never to have been built, so the modern driver must zig-zag along county roads to connect to all of the named municipalities. This necessity makes the actual elapsed distance 278-297 miles, depending on the specific option used, not the 250 miles estimated in the Plan.

Click here to see a PDF modern-day routing of the Second Encircling Highway

The Plan goes on: “The encircling highway next inside the outer one above described begins at Waukegan and passes through Libertyville to Lake Zurich; thence by two routes, one through Barrington to Elgin, the other bending around to skirt the Fox River near Algonquin and Dundee to Elgin, and on through St. Charles, Geneva, and Batavia to Aurora. From Aurora the highway continues to Plainfield, where it crosses the DuPage River, thence through Joliet, and by one route through Manhattan, Monee, Eagle Lake, Cedar Lake, Crown Point, and Hobart, to Lake Michigan; and by another route from Joliet, through Chicago Heights, Griffith, and Tolleston to Gary, on the Lake. The highway will be approximately one hundred and forty miles long, and nearly the whole of the northern part of it is very picturesque.”

Similar to the outer encircling highway, this second highway has no direct modern counterpart and requires a fair amount of zig-zagging to drive through all of the mentioned municipalities. The section from Elgin to Joliet comes closest to following current numbered highways, utilizing Illinois Route 31 and the Lincoln Highway or U.S. 30 throughout the segment. The routing I devised has a mileage varying from 127 to 159 miles, which is not far off the Plan approximation of 140 miles for this beltway.

Click here to see a PDF modern-day routing of the Third Encircling Highway

The Plan continues, ”The next highway proposed goes through a fine, rolling country west of the Des Plaines River. Beginning at Winnetka, it runs through Des Plaines, Elmhurst, and Hinsdale to Blue Island, whence the route divides into two routes, one running through Harvey and Hammond to Gary, and the other running from Blue Island to Robey, on the Lake.” Although an internet search gave me no clue to the meaning of “Robey,” the Plan map seems to indicate that “Robey” is the area of southeast Chicago near the Calumet River harbor at 95th Street/U.S. 12. Over 26 miles of Illinois Route 83 can be used to follow the general routing of this proposed highway, from Elk Grove Village to beyond Sag Bridge. The total distance today to make this run is from 67 to 75 miles, depending on the option utilized.

Click here to see a PDF modern-day routing of the Inner Encircling Highway

Again from the Plan: ”The fourth of the encircling highways begins at Evanston, and passes through Niles to Des Plaines, and along the Des Plaines River to Riverside; all this part of the way, being wooded on the borders of the water, is very beautiful in its present condition. From Riverside, this highway runs through Chicago Ridge to Robey or Blue Island, and from thence to the Lake, over routes already mentioned.” Click here to see a modern-day routing of this inner encircling highway, which can be followed in nearly the routing envisioned by the Plan.

”It will be noted that the diagram provides not only for encircling highways, but also for roads running directly to the heart of Chicago from every important town or village. And it will also be noted that nearly every stretch of roadway shown on the diagram already exists as a more or less satisfactory country road, the dotted lines indicating proposed changes or links. The system as outlined is complete, and it meets every present demand of road building for such extensive environs as those of Chicago. It is confidently believed that in the course of the next few years every mile of these highways will be improved in the best manner, and that thus Chicago ultimately will come to possess a network of surface thoroughfares equal to the requirements of future generations.”

”A satisfactory method of running highways is to parallel the railroads. The work-road should be next to the right-of-way; then should come the carriage driveway. Where electric railroads exist, or are projected on thoroughfares, the most agreeable treatment is found in setting apart for the tracks a space which may be grassed over and well shaded. Besides adding to the comfort of the passengers, the uninterrupted use of the tracks permits high speed and thereby saves time. The improvement of the three roadways as a unit, with the appropriate planting, would give a charm to suburban travel where now there is none, while at the same time expenses of maintenance would be lessened. As a rule, the creation of highways along railroads involves only the bare cost of inexpensive land and the building of the road. The railroads are in themselves great diagonals; and by following them the shortest lines between important points are secured.”

Clearly, the Plan of Burnham and Bennett envisioned country boulevards and parkways that would be part of a transportation network including local rail transit and long-distance passenger rail service. This integrated approach made sense from their 1909 viewpoint, since it utilized the vast existing surface transportation network that Illinois had at its disposal—a network the planners could not expect would be systematically and purposefully dismantled over the next sixty years.

While portions of metropolitan Chicago are still served by commuter rail and Amtrak, this service is a small vestige of the rail transit available to the travelers of 1909, even though the population to be served now is much greater and is more widely dispersed across the entire geographical area.

Also important to the spirit of the Plan is that the highways be esthetically pleasing as well as functional. “The drainage should be perfect, so that pools of stagnant water shall not be an offense to the eye and a menace to health. The unsightly billboard should be replaced by shrubbery or by a wall; and the entire space should be free from the litter of papers or the accumulations of dirt and ashes.” Early examples of roads built in the spirit of the Plan include Wacker Drive, notable for its two levels to separate commercial traffic and its ornamental balustrades, and Lake Shore Drive, which in its earliest manifestations incorporated the values of a country nature drive into an urban setting. Care is given to ensure that the qualities of the locality are visible to those using the road, and that the road’s structures themselves—bridges, retaining walls, and guard rails, for example—have a pleasing and artistic appearance.

In the main, today’s superslabs have artistic grace only when viewed from a great distance, as in an aerial photograph. To the automobile traveler using the highway, the structures are functional and workmanlike, showing little thought to beautification. Their limited access also limits the ability of the traveler to understand the character of the locality through which one is traveling. They are built for speed and safety; they purposely remove traffic from contact with the surrounding area except at access points. They are the antithesis of highways envisioned by Burnham and Bennett in the Plan of Chicago

It is understandable why today’s planners conclude that superhighways like I-355 are necessities, since there are currently few alternatives to motor vehicles for our personal transport and freight hauling. However, invoking the name of Daniel Burnham as if he envisioned our superslabs shows a lack of understanding of the purpose and details of the Plan of Chicago. It is at worst purposefully false, and at best ignorantly misleading.

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